Monday, January 18, 2010

A Call to Action: In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one's soul. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I enjoy my work for Congress and knowing that the reports I work on influence public policy. However with all the suffering in the world, I long to do more.

The issue of human rights is something that I have always found interesting and engaging. My previous volunteer work with the ACLU and Amnesty International focused closely on civil and political rights. I really enjoyed this but came to focus more on social and economic issues in my own work. While both social and economic rights are found in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they are often downplayed or ignored.

Recently, Amartya Sen, a nobel prize winning economist, (and one of the primary inspirations for my M.A. thesis) wrote an article on the legacy and future of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His article is a great read and highlights the positive effects human rights have had in many areas. Sen has grappled closely with the critiques of human rights in two of his books, Development as Freedom and, more recently, in The Idea of Justice. His work has helped me to think more broadly about rights and obligations and what role an individual can play in creating a more just world.

This brings me to the purpose for posting this on the day we recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. and his noble work for social justice. Amnesty International recently refocused their work to more concretely include social and economic rights. The current Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, wrote The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights to highlight this broadening of focus. The book is well-written and very approachable. It highlights the human rights implications of poverty and that the poor are more likely to lack adequate protections of their rights (and thus face significant hardship).

Along with this book, Amnesty International has started a new campaign called Demand Dignity. The campaign (and associated website) are in the early stages and focus on a simple message:
No solution without human rights at its core will have any long-term, sustainable impact on the lives of those in poverty.
It highlights some of the statistics that got me involved in activism over a decade ago:
  • 963 million go to bed hungry each night
  • 1 billion people live in slums
  • One woman dies every minute in childbirth
  • 2.5 billion people have no access to adequate sanitation services
  • 20,000 children die every day from poverty
Sadly, in the ten years since becoming aware of these facts, little has changed. Times are tough -- both here in the U.S. and around the world. Without a more consistent and a sustained push for a more socially just world we will likely face these same grim statistics ten, twenty, or fifty years from now. Such a fate is too terrible to conceive. I hope you will consider getting involved as well.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Global Democracy: Beginning of a New Era?

As a new decade dawns, many people are asking whether this is all there is. The notion that the world will always progress has been called into question by the latest world economic downturn. Stalled progress on a variety of health, security, and humanitarian measures highlights that our future is far from predetermined. The vacuum of democratic power at the international level has been recognized as a possible reason for this and other problems. National interests dominate at bodies like the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. There is little sustained international collaboration, as each country seeks to protect its interests foremost, often at the expense of a global good. Conferences and international meetings can only do so much to highlight current problems. Most governments regard the reports generated by these meetings as merely information. They rarely are implemented into workable public policies.

There are currently efforts to create a more democratic and participatory United Nations. I applaud these efforts, though I fear they lack broad enough appeal to be implemented any time soon. It is certainly hard to imagine that countries would be willing to give up any substantive powers to these bodies. However, a more democratic international community would allow low- to middle-income countries to finally be able to apply the necessary pressure to get high-income countries to sufficiently open their markets to their goods. It would also allow the world to move toward an economic system where environmental, humanitarian, and social well-being can be included in the price of goods. Those goods made under regimes with lax environmental regulations, poor worker protections, and oppression would reflect these social negatives in their price. Only then would places like China be forced to interrupt the "race to the bottom" in terms of workers rights and environmental protections.

While I recognize that such substantive reforms are unlikely, at least in the short term, they are necessary for social justice. A socially just world is only possible when the people of the world can hold nations, international bodies, and corporations accountable for their actions.

You may say I'm a dreamer...